I am about to show my bias: I really love working with southern Illinois farmers.
It's true. Maybe because it's home. Or maybe because they have this network going where they just get things done. Or maybe because when they farm it's against just about every odd: soil, weather, soil. Weather.
When I first met Martin Barbre, it was in the late '90s or early 2000s, when I visited him for a story on the nicotine-free tobacco he and his son Brandon were growing on their Carmi, Ill., farm. Talk about a niche crop. (I also learned on that visit that his mom had been my dad's school teacher. Southern Illinois connections at their finest.)
By 2004, we were on a barge together on the Illinois River, working on a story about the upgrades needed on the lock and dam system.
By 2005, he'd become president of the Illinois Corn Growers. And I will admit, it made me more than a little happy to see a southern Illinois farmer head up the state corn association. It was a big deal. His sights were set a little higher, though; by 2014, he became president of the National Corn Growers Association.
Last winter, I sat in a press conference at the Commodity Classic where he called me out as his southern Illinois neighbor and I couldn't help but think: what are the odds? Two kids from southern Illinois, making ag news and covering ag news. Martin was in a position of real influence. Truth be told, he had been for a long time.
It was at that press conference that Martin announced NCGA's initiative with the American Soybean Association and nearly 30 other groups, called the Coalition for Safe, Affordable Food. The coalition calls for national standards for the safety and labeling of food and beverage products made with GMOs. As it turned out, Martin had served for several years as head of NCGA's Biotechnology Working Group. I began laying plans for a story on GM labeling laws, and Martin and I planned a visit for the next time I was home.
The day we were to meet, I made my way down to the White County bottoms where he and his family farm 4,200 acres. We drove around, looked at corn and talked about labeling laws, activists and America. And fear mongering. And visits to Washington, D.C.
In case you've ever wondered, one of the greater perks of this job is riding around in a truck with farmers.
I was struck again that day of the difference one person could make. Influence. On the family he farms with, on the state he serves, on the politicians he lobbies. On the laws he pushes for, the funding he'd like appropriated and the biotechnology – and ethanol – he'd like to use.
It's all part of what makes him an agriculturalist who influences.
Agriculturalists Who Influence: The Series
- Day 1: Introduction
- Day 2: Jim Evans
- Day 3: Becky Doyle
- Day 4: David and Nancy Erickson
- Day 5: Katie Pinke
- Day 6: Joe Hampton
- Day 7: Noreen Frye
- Day 8: Carolyn Olson
- Day 9: John and Kendra Smiley
- Day 10: Colleen Callahan
- Day 11: Neil and Debbie Fearn
- Day 12: Martin Barbre